I imagine that your Facebook feed, like mine, has been painfully full of the phrase “Me too,” as mostly, but not exclusively, women share the fact that they, too, have been subject to sexual harassment or assault. And maybe your Facebook feed has seen a variety of responses: from men who are saddened, from men who want you to know #notallmen, from men who have been sexually harassed, from women who don’t want to hear (yet again) from men, from trans folks reminding people that they get harassed more than anyone else, from people who share their stories of assault, from people whose trauma is triggered by these stories of assault, and so on and so on.
Revelations about Harvey Weinstein, a powerful man with a long history of sexually abusing women, have brought the issue to the fore. Just like it did when revelations were shared that a man who was running for president actually bragged about assaulting women. And women came forward and testified to how he molested them. And then he got elected, which would make you maybe suspect that we’re not as shocked and appalled as you might think.
It seems like this whole subject is oddly complicated. People want to know what actually counts as harassment, and are we saying that flirting is bad and are we saying that men are bad and what about he said she said and what are we supposed to do about it anyway?
I have a simple standard, and a simple, but not easy, solution. Here’s the simple standard: Anything that treats another human being as a thing to which you are entitled is wrong. That’s it. If you do something or say something to another person because you feel like doing it or saying it without consideration for what they want, you are wrong. Anything that denies or defies the personhood and agency of another human being is wrong. Don’t do it. Simple.
So does that mean that people of all genders are equally responsible? Well, whatever your gender, you are equally responsible for not treating people like things to which you are entitled. But you know those pictures that show the expected geographic range for, say, western warblers or spotted frittilaries? There’s a map, and an area colored in where you might expect to find that particular bird or butterfly. Which doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes appear outside that range, but it’s good to know where to expect them.
It’s like that. The map of the range of sexual predators shows a practice that largely resides in the land of males, just like racism, the practice of entitlement based on race, shows a map where the perpetrators reside pretty much in the land of white. Are there female-identified people who commit acts of sexual assault? Sure, it can happen, as it can happen that people who are not white treat others as less than fully human because of their race. Wrong is wrong. But.
We would do well to remember the expected range. It matters that people who identify as female go through their lives with a wholly justifiable caution and need to protect themselves that men don’t experience in the same way. It matters that there are systems in place to protect those who move through the land of entitlement because of their gender, their race, their money, their power. It matters that we are so accustomed to people being treated as things that we simply expect it as part of how things are done.
So here’s the simple, but not easy, solution. We need to stop allowing people to treat other human beings as things. And we can start with working on the most likely places to find these behaviors. Men could learn that their behavior is suspect. Ideally, they would start to interrogate their own behavior to see if maybe they weren’t as innocent as they thought. But we could all get in the habit of watching for creepy behavior, and calling it out. The men could go first on this one, since they generally are the ones who are safest. We could create structures in which the people who were violated were not the ones responsible for stopping the behavior and imposing consequences. We could use public pressure to end the careers of the most powerfully entitled creepers if we were willing to do that. We could expect schools and universities to uphold a standard of ethics for students and teachers alike that said that no person was to treat another person as a thing to which they were entitled. We could teach children that the way to find out whether a person wants you to do something is to ask them. We could teach adults that the way to find out whether an action is welcome or not is to ask. We could listen to the stories of all the people who have been treated as things, and let go, over and over again, of the toxic belief that we are entitled to other people’s bodies, stories, attention, affection or anything else.
I’m willing to give it a try. Who is willing to say Me too?